Friday, December 21, 2018

House of the Damned / La loba y la Paloma (1974)

House of the Damned is that generically titled, sort of misleading, pleasant delight that reminds me of why I still enjoy exploring near-forgotten Eurocult films from decades past with the word “House” in their titles. It’s far from the traditional haunted house horror and is more of a peculiar seaside murder drama that still hits a lot of the right notes for Spanish horror fans. The translation of the Spanish title is something like The She Wolf and the Dove, which I think is referring to Sandra and Maria (played by Carmen Sevilla and Muriel Catalá), the two main female characters who are also featured on the different regional title posters.

Which one of them is supposed to be the wolf and which one is the dove?

There are some notably fascinating characters in House of the Damned, as everyone comprising the small cast of characters seem to have peculiar and memorable performances. I especially enjoyed Donald Pleasence as Martin Zayas. Also, every shot of Maria, who is a seemingly mute character, is just fantastic. The framing, the intense melancholic expression and blank stare (it's a total mood), she is silenced innocence among scoundrels. There’s also something quite angelic about her.

House of the Damned was co-produced by Harry Alan Towers and filmed on multiple locations in Oviedo, Asturias, Spain, the homeland of the film’s director and co-writer Gonzalo Suárez, who is still active in making films, having just written and directed El sueño de Malinche (2018). Suárez also co-wrote Vicente Aranda’s Left-Handed Fate (1966) and The Exquisite Cadaver (1969). 

The music in the film is by British film composer Malcolm Lockyer, whose orchestral compositions infuse it with a kind of magic. House of the Damned looks to be the last film he composed music for before his death in 1976; decades later his compositions have appeared on the soundtracks to a surprising number of TV and movie productions such as Mallrats (1995) and Seinfeld.

House of the Damned is set around a charming fishing village that’s a short boat ride away to the grounds of a pretty rundown but still marvelous looking waterside house, where our “damned” characters reside. The storyline isn’t convoluted but rather simple and easy to follow, and it utilizes the classic "MacGuffin" technique. An ancient solid gold statue is the object behind the characters’ motivations. A small but good cast of characters pretty much treat each other like crap, as they murder, abuse, manipulate, and deceive one another over this valuable artifact. A young girl, Maria (Catalá), the last one seen with the statue, is believed to be the only one who knows where it is, only she seems to have been rendered non-communicative, having spent many years in an asylum after witnessing her father being murdered over the statue.

Everything is setup quickly with a prologue that initially feels more like an adventure genre film before things get pretty serious. Two childhood friends, Acebo (José Jaspe) and Zayas (Pleasence), are seen venturing out to an island before they moor their small boat at the entrance to a water cave. Zayas seems super focused as he hops into a cavern while consulting a map, obviously looking for buried treasure. This ain't no Treasure Island or Goonies, because it doesn’t take long before Zayas finds the gold statue they’ve been searching for, which he hands off to Acebo before falling off a ledge and breaking his foot. Acebo, hearing the painful cries of his friend, flees with the statue, leaving Zayas for dead (when Pleasence can be heard screaming, “my fucking foot!” it almost seems a little funny, like he’s hamming it up a little).

Later that night, while having dinner with his daughter Maria, Acebo’s guilt follows him home as he hears the cries of Zayas outside, who's managed to swim back from the island, bloodied and barely able to walk. Despite being completely disheveled, Zayas only expresses a desire for the statue. Acebo assures him that it is in a safe hiding place, but when he shows Zayas the hiding place, the statue is gone. Zayas, not in his right mind, thinks Acebo is trying to cheat him. A scuffle breaks out, and Zayas murders Acebo. Maria witnesses this as she is standing on the stairs holding the statue (she had taken it thinking it was a toy). Zayas sees her with the statue, after mistakenly killing her father, but passes out cold as Maria crouches in the corner holding the statue. It’s nutty, but I love this prologue.

I like the way the camera roves under the mansion mote, over flowing water, to denote the passage of time, reminding me of the old adage, “water-under-the-bridge”. We flash forward in time and now that what’s-done-is-done, Zayas is out of prison, holding a small sack of his belongings, traveling back to that house on the water, but not before ironically paying respects to the grave of the man he murdered.

With grey neck beard, instability, and constant focus on the statue, Donald Pleasence is gritty, intense, and (for me) memorable in this. He goes all out as Zayas who seems like a team player, true to his word, but he’s so untrusting of others and acts before he thinks. Despite being a murderer, he’s oddly likable and seems to be the most trustworthy. Just don’t cross him and you’ll be just fine. He just wants his share.

Breaking-and-entering is probably not the wisest thing to do as soon as you get out of prison, but it’s pretty obvious Zayas must’ve been brooding over that gold statue his entire time in the slammer, and it's probably the only thing that matters to him. When Zayas enters the house, the old place looks the same, but he’s about to find out that some things have changed. 

It seems like no one is home, as Zayas helps himself to a bottle of rum, but then a small man peers out of the interior kitchen window. This man is Bodo, and he is played by Michael Dunn (Dr. Miguelito Loveless in The Wild Wild West 1965 – 1968), an actor with medical dwarfism. When Bodo comes out of the kitchen to confront him, Zayas is rude to Bodo and intimidates him with hisses and grunts, taking advantage of Bodo’s small stature, and looking amused with himself after he orders Bodo around. I’m not sure what it is, but the food Bodo serves Zayas looks good and kind of reminds me of potatoes in yellow curry sauce.

When the current owners of the property show up, new characters Sandra (who's Bodo’s sister and Maria's cousin) and her husband Atrilio (played by Spaghetti Western bad guy Aldo Sambrell), things start out tense but turn out to be a little comical because of how Zayas handles the encounter. Zayas even gets sarcastic with Atrilio when Atrilio starts shoving stuff around, trying to intimidate Zayas who’s helped himself to a hospitality that was never offered to him. 

Sandra knows who Zayas is and that he murdered her uncle, and yet she doesn’t seem to be bothered by his presence, oddly enough, even when he keeps asking where Maria is, who we find out was sent to a mental home after she was found, half dead, two days after the night she saw her father murdered.

They all break the ice pretty quickly and are soon breaking bread together at the dinner table when Zayas lets them in on the reason for his showing up. He lets them know of the precious golden statue Maria was holding the night he murdered her father. This convinces them to fetch the mute Maria from the asylum to bring her home to see if they can somehow get her to talk about where she may’ve hidden the statue. Obviously, all of this greed and lack of trust isn’t going to end well. 

Maria never smiles, given her dreadful circumstances she has no reason to. Zayas varies from patient to impatient with her and has hope she’ll eventually come around. Everyone tries to get through to Maria in their own way. 

Bodo tries to warm up to her as a friend and entertainer, treating her like she is some kind of precious fairy princess and using puppet shows as a way to better communicate with her and earn her trust, but he’s really no friend. Sandra seems to take on being a kind of protective mother figure to Maria, although she’s oddly compliant to a lot of abuse but does redeem herself in the end, but kind of like Lady-Macbeth isn’t able to live with her guilt. Atrilio is the meanest and the biggest threat to her. Being violent and abusive to those physically weaker than him makes him feel more like a man (toxic masculinity much?).

I do like that Bodo isn’t portrayed as a dumb or moronic servant (his family treats him like he is, though), but he’s actually articulate and well cultured. Bodo does have moments where he gets to act a little on the nutty side too, with clownish giggling and a tendency to hide in the bushes and spy on people. 

I thought that Bodo’s narration during his puppet story time segments to Maria were actually pretty good. Even Maria lightens her usually somber expression a little. Dunn has a talent for narration. I’ll always remember “the great Bodo, king of the seven seas and lord of the thousand winds.” Michael Dunn received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role in the powerful Ship of Fools (1965).

House of the Damned is such a well-done film. My favorite part is during the storm in the old cathedral when Zayas desperately pleads with Maria to talk, encouraging her as well, guiding her back to reality in a sense, almost like a spell is being lifted. The scene is so intensely dramatic that it gives me the chills.

Zayas is an asshole to Sandra, but for some reason Sandra can’t resist cheating on her husband and going to Zayas’s room at night to reward his boorish behavior with a little adultery. The very brief sex scene between Carmen Sevilla and Donald Pleasence was apparently a selling point to House of the Damned at the time it was released. The director even claimed that Sevilla’s nude scene, where one of her breasts was exposed at a time, to have been "the first tit in Spanish cinema." Unless I'm confused or there's something lost in translation here, I’m afraid Suárez may've been mistaken, as there are earlier Spanish films consisting of exposed breasts, such as The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972) and even in The Exquisite Corpse (1969), which Suárez co-wrote. Perhaps what he might've meant was that it was the first tit in Spanish cinema from a Spanish actress in a Spanish location.  

I do like the way things end up working out and the overall direction, even if a certain clue to the mystery ends up being painfully obvious. House of the Damned is a satisfying experience even coming into it expecting a Spanish horror/thriller but getting a quasi-Shakespearean character drama instead. The old-timey sea element and a beautiful, surreal beach shot really does give it a pleasant and unique feel for something that kind of presents itself as a house-thriller of sorts. Pleasence and Dunn are a couple of expert actors in top form (even if both are hamming it up at times) who fortunately also lend their real voices in the post-dubbing. The other actors aren’t bad either. The story isn’t altogether that unique, but there’s enough peculiarities with the characters to make it seem pretty different, nonetheless. It feels like a near-forgotten film, a status it doesn’t deserve, as far as I can tell. The good characters, Pleasence’s intense performance, Lockyer’s score, and the seaside locations is probably what gives House of the Damned its legs; it has a potential for renewed discovery. It’s heavy-handed but also a good time too. 

© At the Mansion of Madness

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Before AIP’s The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella of the same name, not a whole lot had been done yet to try and bring Lovecraft to the screen. The Haunted Palace from 1963 is partially based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; Die, Monster, Die! from 1965 is a loose adaptation of The Color out of Space; The Shuttered Room from 1967 is an adaptation of August Derleth's story of the same name that was inspired by Lovecraft, and The Crimson Cult from 1969 only takes mild inspiration from Dreams in the Witch House. As far as I can tell, The Dunwich Horror is the first film to be a faithful attempt at a direct title adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story. Not surprisingly some liberties were taken with this film, such as updating it for the late '60s, early '70s, but that’s always to be expected. I do think the The Dunwich Horror movie, for its era, does do Lovecraft justice, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the novella.

It was filmed in Mendocino California, a small coastal community that kind of passes for a New England looking town. I don’t think there was any kind of ocean near Dunwich in the original story, but the seaside connection is suitably Lovecraftian and serves the film well, as it’s usually filmed at night to look dark and ominous with unseen horrors.

The stylish occult and satanic animated intro credits set to the classical and catchy main theme by Les Baxter is a great start that gets you into both a ‘70s and a Lovecraft mood. It has a cartoony and imaginative way of painting the ceremonial birth of the main character Wilbur Whateley on Sentinel Hill. Even the film's detractors agree that this animated segment is terrific.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sex of the Devil / Il sesso del diavolo - Trittico (1971)

How could any Eurocult horror fan resist being attracted to a movie with a poster like this and a title like Sex of the Devil? Whether or not the movie delivers what it promises on the cover is another matter, but when beholding such an epic, suggestively satanic, occult, and erotic poster like this one (centering on what I thought looked a little like a possessed Mia farrow), a spectacular fantasy of a movie is birthed in the mind of the observer, one that is often very different from the movie in reality, for better or worse. I admit to initially being attracted and baited in to this film based solely on this poster. Sex of the Devil not surprisingly turned out to be something other than I had imagined, and if it weren’t for that advertisement I may have never found it. So basically, the movie poster did its job, and I slowly fell in love with another movie.

Despite not being what I expected and bearing the usual pacing and plot resolution issues, Sex of the Devil still delivered the goods, and, in the end, it ended up delivering what it promised on the poster as well.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Whisper in the Dark / Un sussurro nel buio (1976)

A Whisper in the Dark is a personal favorite of mine. It has been referred to as the Italian The Turn of the Screw (1898) and is a subtle take on the haunted family category of storytelling, focusing on a wealthy family living in a gorgeous and at times spooky villa that’s like a hotel resort (probably because it was filmed at a hotel, the five-star Hotel Villa Condulmer near Venice). It’s got that gothic horror aesthetic but downplays the horror in favor of exploring family dynamics with shades of the supernatural that are symbolic of unresolved family problems. The supernatural is always kept ambiguous; almost everything strange that happens can be explained, but the circumstances do leave a lot to the imagination. As is usually the case, the ambiguity is the film’s strength and its weakness.

The cinematography by Claudio Cirillo is really the main attraction, and with Marcello Aliprandi’s direction, the visuals, coupled with Pino Donaggio’s sweet and melancholic score, end up being the stuff of fairytales, comprising some of the most majestic locations and set pieces. The villa and its somber exterior and grounds, dating back to the sixteenth century, have a deep, haunting presence, a rich sense of past generations emanating from it. And the children’s ball is an enchanting segment, with costumes and constantly falling confetti, which concludes with a phantasmagoric night time burning of an effigy floating on the river. According to Cirillo the different weather conditions, such as the foggy atmosphere seen during the opening credits, were by chance. Listening to Cirillo vibrantly talk about his craft on the NoShame DVD interview, you can tell the man is an artist.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Daughter of Dracula / La fille de Dracula (1972)

Jess Franco filmed Daughter of Dracula back to back with the preceding film Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972). These two films seem similar and for me were sometimes easy to confuse with one another, but after reviewing them both back to back, I realize they are quite different in many ways. Unlike the previous film, the eroticism is amped up this time around, particularly with the love/feeding scenes between Franco regulars of the era Anne Libert and Britt Nichols. It isn’t necessarily the monster mashup like the previous film since for monsters we just have Dracula, a femme vampire, and a mystery killer. Perhaps it’s more of a Eurocult genre mashup, as this one has a reputation for being confused as to whether it wants to be an erotic vampire horror film or a giallo-like murder mystery.

Daughter of Dracula doesn’t quite reach its potential, but it’s nonetheless a relaxing Gothic horror with a captivating modern ‘70s setting in an old-world location that provides the right ambiance us Eurocult fans can’t get enough of.

Howard Vernon reprises his role as his own odd, unique, near-lifeless version of Count Dracula from Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein. He’s even less active here, but Britt Nichols and Anne Libert get more to do this time around, even if Nichols’ vampire scenes may’ve soared a little more in the preceding movie.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein / Dracula contra Frankenstein (1972)

Jess Franco had already covered Dracula by directing a movie adaption of Bram Stoker’s seminal Gothic horror vampire novel from 1897 a couple years prior. So, what does Jess do next when returning to make another Gothic Count Dracula movie?... Take the Universal route and throw Dracula in with other classic monster figures, like Frankenstein and The Wolfman, to have a go at it and see who would win in a fight.

With Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein, the familiar monster mashup style gets the Jess Franco treatment, which is essentially Classic Universal horror in color with Franco’s flavor of visual and hypnotic storytelling, yet for a Jess Franco film, the eroticism is quite tame, with no nudity to be found. It adapts certain elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the Dracula angle, but the Frankenstein angle borrows more from Franco’s own The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962) and less from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Curiously, the opening text, credited to David H Klunne (a Franco pseudonym), is pretty much a poetic and short synopsis of the film, rather than some sort of backstory setup to get viewers up to date, like an opening Star Wars crawl. That’s OK, because there isn’t really a whole lot to spoil, since the experience of the film, in this case, is a little more important than the story, which I think isn’t necessarily hard to follow, but it doesn’t really sink in either since there is a lot of visual depth, atmosphere, and cool ideas in what is a slow and thin plot.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

School of Fear / Il gioko (1989)

‘80s Italian horror TV movies aren’t always the most memorable and have a tendency to be a little underwhelming in comparison to the classic gialli and Eurohorror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s golden era. By the late ‘80s, we were at, or were even beyond, the tail end of the horror boom, with many Italian directors making movies more for television. Lamberto Bava directed a lot of TV movies throughout his career. His ‘80s horror TV movies paid a lot of homage to the classic gialli and horror films that sculpted the genre like The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Inferno (1980), House by the Cemetery (1981), his father’s Black Sunday (1960), and even his own Demons (1985). A lot of times his TV films could be a little mediocre and almost feel like near-pointless rehashes, like Demons 3: The Ogre (1988), but Lamberto Bava also had a tendency to catch you by surprise with TV movies like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil (1989), the hilarious and ‘80s satirical Dinner with a Vampire (1989), and the (previously) hard-to-find School of Fear.

Aside from being an interesting take on the evil kid trope, School of Fear / Il gioko does present a lot to chew on, and like Demons 5: The Devil’s Veil and Macabre (1980) is a little more of what I prefer from director Lamberto Bava. Don’t get me wrong, Demons and A Blade in the Dark (1983) are awesome too, but I honestly lamented for a time that we never really got something as twisted, different, and well-made as Macabre. It’s still no Macabre, but School of Fear feels a little more in the right direction towards something twisted and different.

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